Thursday, August 13, 2015

It's Not Good to be Right When Things Go Wrong

I was reflecting on my past corporate experience and it struck me that it is not good to be right when things that you opposed go wrong.

In my day, I was "the guy".  "The Guy" was the person who strongly opposed ideas that were popular with senior executives but were not going to work.  "The Guy" was the one that spoke up in meetings to say why we should not do something or do it differently and the consequences.  Meanwhile, the toadies and yes-people were whispering "..his career is toast.." or "..doesn't he know this is the CEO's pet project?"  I am not talking about piping up with a concern, having it squashed, then going along with the doomed project.  I am talking about really making yourself heard to the right decision makers, who were usually the cheerleaders for the idea.

Later, after the project bombs and there is a witch-hunt for the people involved in the decision, no one goes back to "the guy" and says "you were right".  In fact, you are just as likely as anyone involved to get swept up in the search for the guilty and pilloried.

A few examples I remember:
  1. Opposing the degree of outsourcing in a project while we were trying to execute another big project.  Too much change, loss of expertise, confusion said I, and eventually the big project fell well behind schedule as the new outsource company struggled.
  2. Forecasting that the WIMAX market would be small compared to traditional 3G and 4G technologies.  I predicted it would be around 1/10th or 1/100th of the traditional market, and it turned out to be even smaller.  This got me removed from my job and a forced transfer to a very unpleasant assignment.
  3. Buying a small startup during the Internet bubble of the 00's, I was the leader of the due diligence team that examined the startup.  After a good first impression (the company hid all its troubles), we found major problems.  Despite bringing this to attention of senior execs, we went ahead and the reason given was " is good publicity to buy startups.."  Coincidentally, I was only asked to join a diligence team once after that, maybe because someone forgot to tell the execs I was "the guy".
So what advice can I offer to those still moving onwards and upwards with their career?  Following in my footsteps and becoming another "the guy" is not recommended.  Some guidance:
  • Clearly state your position and reasoning when you are faced with that popular project that has major problems.  Make sure that you do it professionally and calmly in front of the right decision makers.
  • Listen for the response.  If it is clear that you were heard and things are moving ahead anyway, you should quieten down and look for options:
    • Don't try to undermine the project behind the scenes.  A bad project executed badly is worse than a bad project executed well.
    • If there is no way to stop the train wreck, get out of the way if possible.  
    • Support the project and see if there is a way to make it succeed, perhaps through a change in the plan.
    • If there is another decision point in future, perhaps wait for this point to restate your case, particularly if more is known at that future time.
    • If the results are going to be truly catastrophic (bankruptcy, criminal charges, loss of the corporation's good reputation), you should go to higher authority and state your case professionally
Picture credit: Flickr

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